Tuesday, 28 May 2019


Do you remember when Wallander discovered an ATM in the centre square of Ystad, Sweden was about to crash the world economy? Well, Helsingborg is a bigger city than Ystad (just over 100,000) people but in the limited time frame of Stefan Ahnhem's Motive X it suffers enough big-time crime to make it Europe's murder capital. For example:

1. a young immigrant boy killed in a laundry room washing machine which might be related to
2. an active child molester or
3. neo-Nazis, whose Sweden Democrat party office is firebombed and who fire-bomb a refugee centre
4. a stabbing at the scene of a hit and run
5. a series of killings by a killer instructed by charts he has created and follows using probablity dice
6. a child kidnapping
7. a sex killer who stalks his victim while she sleeps, who turns out to be character legendary in a local sex club (Remember I Am Curious, Yellow?)

which seems a lot of business for one small crime squad, especially since detective Fabian Risk has decided one of the detectives, Ingvar Molander, is a serial killer himself, and has murdered another detective who had also figured th1s secret out. Molander, a know-it-all who considers himself far to smart for his colleagues, is the most interesting character in the series, and his name carries what seem to me playful reminders of both Wallander and Martin Beck's collegaue Melander, who knows everything but spends all his time in the police toilet.

That Ahnhem can keep all those balls juggling without dropping them is no mean feat, even though at times you find some of the villains, particularly the neo-Nazis, waste a lot of time rather than taking care of business, and he does rely on one pretty blatant bit of deus ex machina coincidence, but what makes it work is something that is the essence of Scandinavian crime fiction: the personalities of the police, and how they are affected by the pressures of their society.

This goes right back to Sjowall and Wahloo's Martin Beck, and in Risk we have a cop whose home life makes Beck's look like Ozzie and Harriet's. In the previous novel, the family has nearly been killed by another serial killer, though some of this is understandable, but one of the key elements of this novel involves Risk trying to reason with his son while he's thinking through a crime problem, a very good piece of writing.

Ahnhem was a screenwriter on the Swedish Wallander series (with Krister Henriksson), and he's obviously learned from Mankell, as well as Sjovall & Wahloo and very much from Steig Larsson. But he's somewhat less concerned with Swedish society (although the Sweden Democrats are a right-wing nationalist party, and probably don't enjoy his neo-Nazi portrayal of them) than with the nature of control in individual relationships. This is the point where the crimes and the personalities intersect: questions of who controls whom.

He tells the story with almost teasing changes of scene and multiple points of view, and very matter of fact gory violence. Meanwhile his cops are falling apart, even beyond of them being a killer. It sometimes creaks, and sometimes the responses don't quite seem right, but as with Larsson, the impetus of the plot carries the reader on. And of course, two of the main storylines are left unresolved for the next high-Risk installment.

Motive X by Stefan Ahnhem
Head Of Zeus £18.99 ISBN 9781786694607

This review will also appear at Crime Time (www.crimetime.co.uk)

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